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Applying a constructive-developmental approach to issues of sexual orientation and religion in career counseling.

An individual's constructive development, or system of meaning making, is relevant to the process of career counseling. A description of constructive-developmental theory and how that theory may he integrated in career counseling is provided, focusing on a case study that addresses issues of sexual orientation and religious identity. Methods for assessing constructive development are explored, and literature relating to the effectiveness of this approach is discussed.

Guindon and Richmond (2005), in their review of recent professional literature related to career counseling and career development, reported an increasing focus on construtivist theories in the field. In this article, I outline an approach to career counseling that is informed by Regan's (1982,1994) theory of constructive development. Kegan (1982,1994) has conceptualized development as a series of emergences from embeddedness in one particular way of knowing and understanding self, odiers, and the world, to more complex and adaptive ways of making meaning. McAuljffe (1993) previously integrated Kegan's theory with career practice by asserting that the way an individual constructs meaning informs his or her ability to adaptively face career challenges. My intent is to provide a full-length case example that more clearly elucidates how the constructive-developmental approach may be applied to a specific career counseling case. First, I review literature related to the constructive-developmental approach. I then present a case of a client dealing with issues of sexual orientation and religious identity. In my response to this case study, constructive-developmental case conceptualization and assessment are discussed as important intervention elements. I close with a discussion of literature that relates to the effectiveness of the constructive-developmental approach.

Review of Relevant Literature

According to Kegan (1982,1994), development is conceptualized as a process in which the individual constructs and reconstructs personal meanings over the life span. In this process, a series of meaning-making stages develop that frame the way the person views the self and encounters the world. As new information or experience challenges the individual's current meaning stage, a new system for understanding the self and the world is constructed. Through a constant process of assimilation and accommodation, periods of balance or truce that maintain the current meaning-making stage occur, alternating with periods of imbalance or disequilibrium that lead to the construction of qualitatively new ways of making meaning.

Kegan (19S2, 1994) has conceptualized five primary stages of development, with transitional stages between each. However, most adults make meaning in ways characterized by two of these stages (Kegan, 1994; Kegan et al., 2001), which Kegan has called the Interpersonal Balance and the Institutional Balance stages. Therefore, for the purposes of this article, I briefly describe these two primary adult stages of development. Readers who are interested in more detailed descriptions of these or the other stages are referred to Kegan's work (1982, 1994) or to articles by Hooper (2006) and McAuliffe (1993).

The Interpersonal Balance stage (Kegan, 1982, 1994) is an expected stage of constructive development for many older adolescents and many adults. At this stage, individuals are theorized to be embedded in interpersonal relationships and roles related to these relationships. Rather than having relationships, these individuals may be defined by relationships. Hall and Chandler (2005) have theorized that Kegan's conceptualization can be integrated when considering career concerns. They argued that in less complex meaning-making stages, such as the Interpersonal Balance stage, an individual can be embedded in his or her career performance and may be defined by the career role. Furthermore, Kegan (1982, 1994) has contended that because the self is generally not individuated when making meaning at the Interpersonal Balance stage, what is important to the person is often related to what is viewed as acceptable by the individual's reference group. In relation to career choices or indecision, valued external sources such as a client's family, peer groups, or religion could therefore be influential at this stage. The meaning maker who is struggling with career concerns at the Interpersonal Balance stage may be swayed fairly easily to follow the advice of others, and his or her own voice and needs may be harder to maintain or assert in the presence of strong opinions from valued others.

It has been theorized (Kegan, 1982,1994) that an individual enters the Institutional Balance stage at the point at which the self can be authored separately, or independently, from group rules and roles. This stage is seen as primary for many adults. With meaning making at the Institutional Balance stage, individuals can begin to articulate needs, values, and interests that are not necessarily related to the norms of the reference group (McAuliffe, 1993). Because he or she is now self-authoring, the person is able to mediate opposing points of view and endure the disagreement of others that is related to personal choices. As this stage emerges, the individual creates a self-as-institution that can navigate, organize, and regulate messages both from reference groups and from the self. In this stage, difficulty with career crisis or indecision can arise from an individual's primary identification with a current role, which may not allow for flexibility in and revision of that role. Because the person now constructs and authors the self, he or she may become embedded in self-created boundaries and may struggle to imagine options beyond him- or herself For example, the meaning maker in the Institutional Balance stage who is struggling with career indecision could have such a rigid view of personal skills and work options that he or she misses or ignores other career possibilities.

In their study of college women and career decision making, Creamer and Laughlin (2005) asserted that self-authorship is central to the process of career decision making. They suggested that an individual's self-authoring ability influences how that person will make meaning of advice given by others (including information provided by career counselors), how the individual will be affected by difficult feedback, and how that person's reasoning on decisions is determined by his or her own desires or by the opinions of valued others. Furthermore, Hall and Chandler (2005) argued that it is when the person develops more complexity in meaning making, as occurs in the transition to the Institutional Balance stage, that the self becomes internally authored and the person may become less embedded in the career. At this point, the career can become part of a whole life rather than completely defining a life. The person's view of personal and career success would no longer be tied to feedback from external sources. In other words, as the person moves through stages of constructive development, he or she can begin to see the career not as a definition of the self, but as a part of the larger self and as a connection to the larger world.

The reviewed literature suggests that the process of development to self-authorship is central to constructive-developmental theory and that such concerns are relevant to career counseling as well. In the next section, I present a case study that illuminates these issues. I have chosen this particular case because it describes one person's transition to greater self-authorship and provides an opportunity to demonstrate the constructive-developmental approach in career counseling.

A Case Study of Sexual Orientation and Religious Identity

This case example concerns a 36-year-old Caucasian woman who participates in career counseling. Her presenting concerns are stated as if she were speaking aloud in this first-person narrative, to allow the reader a glimpse of this client's meaning making. Only areas of content specific to the focus of this article are included.
 I am really becoming depressed with this sales position. I have been
 working there for about 9 years and I have had two promotions. I
 manage a small team of employees now. From the outside, I guess you
 could say that things are going well ... bur I just hate it. Before
 this job, I was a youth minister at a Christian church. I really
 miss that. You know, it really meant: something to me. I have
 always been a religious person.... It really was personal for me.
 It felt like a calling all my life. I remember being in high school
 and feeling like God called me to do this.

 Just as I was graduating from college, 1 realized that I was
 attracted to women. I didn't think about it much at first because
 it just didn't seem to fit. I mean, the church was opposed and I was
 a believer, right? I just knew God would work it out if I believed
 hard enough.... And that worked for a while. But the feelings just
 kept coming back.

 I don't really know what changed or why I started to accept it
 [becoming a lesbian]. I think one day I just realized that these
 attractions were going to keep happening, and I decided to really
 look at this. I started reading and eventually started meeting
 people. I started realizing that I could be Christian and a lesbian.
 In fact, I was just feeling good about all of that when it happened
 Someone at church saw me with some other women who were my friends,
 and rumors started to spread. It was really hard and sad. Eventually
 the pastor confronted me and they asked me to leave. I never even
 got to say good-bye to the youth group. I heard later that they
 were told I was lesbian.

 It took me a while to get over that. I was so angry--but that's not
 my point here. I had some friends who knew of this sales opening and
 I just took it. You know, it was okay at first. I needed time to
 heal, and it was a paycheck. But over time I have come to really
 despise it. I never get to connect with people on things that arc
 important to me. I never get to talk about God, or our fears, or
 laugh really deeply. I just try to make the sale. It reels so
 false--not what matters to me in the end.

 The problem is that I just don't know what I can do. I feel sort of
 trapped. I mean, I make a pretty good income. My partner and I get
 to take trips, and we have a house. But all I have ever really been
 is a minister. I can't be that now. I hear there are gay churches
 and things, but they just are not what I want. 1 have really stopped
 going to church because I know they won't accept me. I have plenty
 of friends and my relationship is great--but I just want my work to
 be great, too. I want it to mean something. I am lesbian and 1 like
 that.... And I am a Christian and I like that, too. ... Well, I
 used to like that. But other people don't accept those things
 together, and I just don't know what to do.

Constructive-Developmental Case Conceptualization and Case Response

From the constructive-developmental perspective, career indecision or crisis would not be viewed as a sign of less mature development or as a difficulty in making decisions (Kegan, 1982, 1994). Instead, clients with career concerns are simply clients in the process of transformation (Savickas, 1995). The process of career counseling involves the development of a strong therapeutic alliance and working relationship, which begins and continues from the first session (Sharf, 2002). During this time, it is important for counselors to note the client's reactions to the counseling process and to continually examine how career decision making interacts with the client's current ways of understanding self and the world (McAuliffe, 1993). In the preceding case example, it would also be important for the counselor to be aware of current research and theory on work with clients who arc lesbians and also for whom religion and spirituality are important. Readers are referred to the recent works of Chung (2003), Pope et al. (2004), and House (2004) for considerations in career counseling with lesbian clients. Also, Buchanan, Dzelme, Harris, and Hecker (2001); Schuck and Liddle (2001); and Rodriguez and Ouelette (2000) have studied how issues of lesbian and gay identity interact with religious concerns, which could also be helpful with the case example.

The issues of career choice and related crises are not simply about earning a living; they are about making a life. As life experiences are examined and evaluated for individual meaning within the context of career counseling, they can be linked to meaningful career choices. Career interventions centered in the meaning-making stage (Kegan, 1982, 1994) of the client are most appropriate for this purpose. Therefore, before considering a career intervention, a constructive-developmental career counselor would carefully consider the meaning-making stage of the client. By assessing the client's constructive-develop mental stage, counselors can balance levels of challenge and support more appropriately for each individual and introduce interventions in more accessible ways for each client.

Assessment of the Constructive-Developmental Stage

Constructive development can be assessed formally through the Subject-Object Interview (SOI; Lahey, Souvaine, Kegan, Goodman, & Felix, 1988). Construct validity has been established for the SOI by correlations in expected directions with measures of Kohlberg's (1981), Piaget's (1950,1952), and Loevinger's (1976) stage theories. Although the assessment itself is not expensive to provide to clients and can be administered in one counseling session that is slightly longer than the norm, it should be noted that counselor training for the SOI is extensive. The training currently includes attendance at a training seminar and a time commitment both before and after training to practice scoring and interpreting interviews. On a personal note, I found this training to be extremely helpful in developing my skill in formal SOI assessment and also in deepening my understanding of the theory so that a more informal assessment process would be possible.

In short-term career counseling, time for a formal administration of the SOI may be limited. However, an informal assessment of the client's constructive development may still be valuable (McAuliffe, 1993; McAuliffe & Eriksen, 1999). In such an informal assessment, counselors may examine the ways a client constructs his or her narrative in the counseling process, and the counselor may relate this client content to a particular meaning-making stage. As noted, this task requires familiarity with constructive-developmental theory, and I have found it to be much easier after receiving the formal training just described. That noted, McAuliffe and Eriksen have provided some information on informal assessment of constructive development. These authors suggested that counselors use questions such as the following that explore client meaning making:

* What lets you know that that is (good, right, important)?

* Why is that important to your

* What's at stake here?

* What makes you most (nervous, angry, etc.) about that?

* If it were to turn out another way, what would be the cost for you?

* How would you have liked this to turn, out? Why? (McAuliffe & Eriksen, 1999, p. 274)

Counselors can then consider how the meaning making in a client's answers is reflective of a certain constructive-developmental stage. Counselors can test this informal assessment by treating their initial impressions as hypotheses and working with the client to determine if these impressions are to be trusted.

Assessing the Constructive-Developmental Stage of the Case Study Client

For several reasons, it seems that the client in the case study previously presented is making meaning from within Regan's (1982, 1994) Institutional Balance stage. First, at the time of career counseling, the client seems to define herself primarily as a lesbian and a religious woman. In the Institutional Balance stage, the client would demonstrate a system for viewing self, others, and the world that was internally, rather than externally, authored. The client describes how she has come to define herself in these ways, separate from the expectations of valued others. The client briefly describes an earlier meaning-maidng system (the Interpersonal Balance stage) that helps to elucidate her current Institutional Balance stage. For example, she describes a past primary identity that was Christian or ministry-related. Identification with that identity informed her initial attempt to disregard her attractions to other women. She communicates that a lesbian identity would not fit with how she viewed herself and the world at that time. This is characteristic of the earlier Interpersonal Balance meaning-making stage. Also, when she mentions her initial reaction to her discovery of sexual orientation, she describes a self-definition tied to her primary reference group at the time (the church or her religion). That group denied the acceptability of sexual minority' identity and so the client attempted to deny this identity in herself. As the client's attractions to other women became an ongoing experience in her life and also became more difficult to deny, the client's meaning making from within the earlier Interpersonal Balance stage could no longer discount her new experience. Her movement toward the current Institutional Balance stage might have begun in relation to the disequilibrium she experienced at that time.

Another reason that I assess this client as making meaning at the Institutional Balance stage is related to her current struggle. At the present time, she states that she has stopped attending church and seems confused about how her lesbian and ministerial identities could coincide. She seems to believe that these two primary roles or identities cannot coexist. The client seems unable to imagine career options that would allow her to fill both these roles, and the sense of purpose that she described earlier seems unattainable to her in her current situation. This type of struggle can be a common challenge at the Institutional Balance stage (Kegan, 1994; Kegan et al., 2001). The person has an internally authored system for viewing the self and worldng in the world, but the person can be so defined by that way of understanding that alternative ways of viewing the world may not be considered.

The Holding Environment

The next step in the constructive-developmental approach to career counseling would be to apply the assessment information about the client's constructive-developmental stage to what Kegan (1982, 1994) has called the holding environment. The holding environment has been defined as a combination of support for the current meaning-making stage along with a challenge or contradiction to the meaning making in that stage, in an attempt to encourage development. Career counseling interventions can offer support by being based in the constructive-developmental stage of the client. Such interventions will be readily understood by the client because they are structured in the ways in which the client currently makes meaning. However, interventions can also challenge the client by encouraging or pacing further meaning-making development.

Applying the Constructive-Developmental Approach

I have discussed conceptualization, assessment, and the holding environment in this constructive-developmental approach. How are these concepts applied to the case example and what interventions will both support and challenge this client? The career counselor can offer support related to this client's current Institutional Balance stage by validating the client's commitment to the self and to her own system for making career decisions. The counselor can support the client's strength in self-authoring, her courage and determination to survive reflected throughout her life choices, and her ability to build supportive relationships. Challenge should be related to the client's self-definition that will currently not allow her to integrate her lesbian and Christian identities. The client can be encouraged to consider other decision-making systems that would help her to integrate unexplored alternatives to career concerns. First, it will be important to explore the client's current level of information related to the world of work. There are Christian denominations and groups that are supportive of sexual minority members and ministers. Although the client mentions an awareness of such denominations, the client's understanding of and meaning making related to these groups is unclear and should be discussed. The client's current self-definition seems not to allow her participation in such groups, and this is an area for further exploration. Does the client's focus on the lesbian-former-minister self that she has constructed block other interpretations of self that might allow her to examine these groups as options?

Because the client's self-authored system has limited her ability to consider other solutions or ways to conceptualize her concerns (Kegan, 1982, 1994), the counselor could introduce several other options as interventions. This client could be asked to interview a minister or congregant in a congregation that is accepting of minority sexual identity. The client's reactions to this meeting could be processed in career counseling sessions. As the client sits with the discomfort of systemic views different from her own, an adjustment to her personal meaning making may become a possibility as she begins to view herself in more ways and with more possibilities than her current self-definition allows. The client may decide that the purpose she had experienced in the career of ministry may still be available to her as a lesbian woman or may be found in other types of careers.

Effectiveness of the Approach

Results of research studies (e.g., Baxter Magolda, 1998; Belenkv, Clinchv, Goldberger, & Tarulc, 1986; Kegan, 1994; Kegan et al., 2001; Perry, 1970) have indicated a general pattern of adult development in which individuals organize their experience and understanding in increasingly complex ways. This pattern has been characterized as a transition from dependence on external authority to developing an internally authored self. Specific to Kegan's (1982, 1994) theory, results of empirical studies (e.g., Hammerman, 2002; Kegan, 1994; Kegan et al., 2001) thus far have indicated that qualitatively different ways of knowing exist across a cross-section of adults and that individuals have demonstrated movement from one constructive-developmental stage to the next.

Constructive development has been shown to inform career experience as well. Baxter Magolda (1998, 1999, 2001, 2004), in work that has focused primarily on college students and their ongoing development into adulthood, has described constructive development as a movement toward self-authorship. In a 10-year longitudinal study, Baxter Magolda (1998) found that employers expected self-direction and personal responsibility for decision making from their employees, but the workers were unsure how to accomplish this until they were able to develop more self-authorship. Furthermore, Creamer and Laughlin (2005) found that self-authorship informed career decision making for college women. As these women developed more cognitive complexity, their ability to navigate and integrate their viewpoints of self and others increased. Creamer and Laughlin's research results imply that by fostering self-authorship, career counselors may encourage their clients' wider considerations of career options. Research studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of the constructive-developmental approach in the specific activity of career counseling are needed.


I have attempted to demonstrate the constructive-developmental approach to career counseling by reviewing relevant literature and examining a case study involving a client's sexual orientation and religious identity. Some of the interventions described (such as providing career information or having the client do informational interviewing) are similar to interventions that counselors working from any theoretical orientation may attempt in career counseling settings. However, the constructive-developmental approach to career counseling calls for a specific focus on the meaning making of the client and the application of these interventions in a holding environment that is appropriate to that client's meaning-making stage. I contend that when these or other interventions are viewed through a constructive-developmental lens, counselors may apply them in a way that balances both support and challenge appropriately for diverse clients. It is my hope that this article will inspire career counselors to consider this approach in their work with clients. I believe my clients have found interventions and the counseling relationship itself to be more understandable, more agreeable, and perhaps even more meaningful when they are situated according to the client's constructive-developmental stage.


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Parrish L. Paul, Department of Counselor Education, Counseling Psychology, and Rehabilitation Services, The Pennsylvania State University. Parrish L. Paul is now at Vanderbilt University/Veterans Affairs Consortium in Psychology and the Psychological and Counseling Center. The author thanks Spencer Miles, Kathy Bieschke, Kelly Blasko, Gina Frieden, and Shanti Pepper for /heir helpful comments and suggestions on this article. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Parrish L. Paul, Psychological and Counseling Center, Vanderbilt University, 1120 Baker Building, 110 21st Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37203 (e-mail: parrish!
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Author:Paul, Parrish L.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Article Type:Case study
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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